Summer 2011: reboot and recharge.

A little over a week ago, I conducted the last concert of my 2010-11 season. In most years, I would now just be charging ahead at full speed into summer festival season, but this year, after a couple of projects fell victim to the economy, I’ve decided to allow myself a bit of a break. The last few summers have been wonderful but extremely intense. After a year as demanding and busy as the one that ended last Saturday, I thought it might be time to spend some time with my family, but also to do a bit of general refreshing and renewal of body and mind.

As someone who is essentially a freelancer, there is always a degree of pressure to stay as busy as possible, but dashing from one gig to the next can take its toll physically and musically. Somehow, I have more or less managed to maintain my study habits as I’ve gotten busier, but there comes a time when you don’t always want to base your choices about what to study and practice on the simple calculus of what you are scheduled to perform next week. There are still several projects and deadlines to deal with this summer. Already, we’ve started a good spring clean on, and set up a micro-site within the blog for the Bobby and Hans recording project.  There are podcasts to record and edit, articles due, brochure blurbs to write, rehearsal schedules to organize, bowings to mark and so on. Hmm… this is sounding less and less like a break. At least I don’t have any concerts to worry about.

So, in the next couple of months, I’ve got the best chance to recharge my batteries, mentally, musically and physically that I’ve had in several years and that I may have for several years to come.  So, what is on my agenda?


1-    Bach Cello Suites. Back about 2001 or so, I had a my last similarly quiet summer, and kept myself busy by working through  a different Bach Suite every day. I also learned Mahler 3 and 7 properly. I can still feel the benefits of that project, so I’m doing it again. I’m about a week in, and am now thinking about striking a balance between my Bach-a-day regimen and digging in to one Suite in deeper detail for a week or two at a time. My trio is going to be busy in the Fall, and I’m doing a run of cello recitals in the UK in September and October, and I know all the work on Bach is going to help.

Ken's cello practice is heating up (photo- Travis Sipher)

Ken's cello practice is heating up (photo- Travis Sipher)


2-    Finish some reading projects. Volume IV of de la Grange’s Mahler biography, all 1400 pages of it, is sitting partially read by my sofa. Likewise John Worthen’s Schumann biography, nearly finished and looking at me all the more accusatorily as a result. I’ve just finished David Levy’s study on Beethoven 9 and Walter Frisch’s book on the Brahms symphonies- those were nice easy reads, but perhaps not as revelatory as I had hoped they’d be (especially since Frisch’s book on Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation is one of the best books on music ever written).  I’ve just been handed a good-looking book on Brahms 2, which I’m returning to next season, by Reinhold Brinkman, and I’ve been wanting to read Daniel Jaffe’s promising looking book on Prokofiev since I met him at a party in London. I’ve really enjoyed Gál’s book on Brahms, and am hoping his Schubert study is just as good. Last year, I read most of Janacek’s published essays. I fear it may be some years before I come across anything as inspiring as those again. Maybe it’s time to read a couple of novels?

3-    Playing some piano. As conductors go, I’m not much of a piano player- real practice time, scarce as it is, has always gone to keeping my cello skills at a level where I can perform and record for as long as possible. However, I love sitting at the piano and playing through things, even badly, and although I can read and hear things in my head way faster and more fluently than I can play them at the keyboard, I always learn new stuff by making my fingers put the right keys down for even a familiar piece. What I’d really like do now is actually use the summer to play some real piano music, rather than bashing through Shostakovich and Brams symphonies. I’m told there is some very nice music acutually written for the piano.

4-    Learn some scores that aren’t in my calendar, and may not be for many years to come. Five years ago, I was getting seriously worried that I would never get another chance to conduct a Mahler Symphony unless I forced the issue a bit. So…. I forced the issue a little bit, programmed the 2nd Symphony in the most unlikely place on Earth, started writing this blog about the experience, and, well, life changed. Now you can buy my first Mahler CD (see how I worked that in?). What is the lesson? Maybe there are other issues that need forcing? Bruckner is one. I’m finally getting to do the 5th Symphony next year. I’m going to take that as a sign that now is the time to create opportunities to explore Bruckner the way I’ve been exploring Mahler. Just wait for the first Bruckner disc- I’m aiming for 2 years. First, though, I need to learn the works I don’t know except as a listener- the first 4 symphonies (Zero-3) and the 6th. In much the same vein, it’s time to start pulling opera back into my life. Since I don’t have an opera gig, and don’t have to worry about what to do with a run of Boheme’s (which I already know, anyway), I can learn a few pieces I’ve always wanted to study. This summer, I hope to work through one Wagner, one Janacek, one Prokofiev and one Berg. Hmm, that is a lot of notes…. And words…..

5-    Practice my languages. Being in an English-speaking country is no way to maintain and improve one’s French, Italian and German. It would be great to work on any of those outside the context of a libretto or song setting.

6-    Ride my bike. This picture brings back a lot of good memories- climbing Mount Evans on 2 wheels was a great accomplishment for me.

Ken feeling smug on the summit of Mount Evans, el. 14,264 feet above sea level

Right now, I could no more do it than I could grow an extra kneecap. And that beautiful white Trek got fried on the fire that devoured the offices of my old orchestra. However… I’ve got a beautiful new Trek, and somehow, whatever it costs me in childcare, I’m going to ride it this year. 50,000 odd miles driving since last September has been tough on my back and general fitness level. Now’s the chance to get back in fighting shape.

My bike tech is a real prodigy


Will I manage to get it all done, or will I, as one great conductor friend once so aptly put it, just let the time “f*ck away without doing anything worthwhile?”

I wonder what’s on readers’ agendas for the summer? Is there a book you’ve been dying to read or a score you’ve wanted to learn? Maybe you’ve been meaning to listen to that whole box set of Hummel someone gave you? Let us know.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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3 comments on “Summer 2011: reboot and recharge.”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    Already, progress has been made. Finished the Worthen book today. Very good, and very sad. Glad to see someone has taken the time to make a clearly documented and researched rebuttal of many of the Schumann myths.

    I’ve also had a flood of well-intentioned suggestions of what piano music I might play. from twinkle twinkle to the Bartok sonata. The great thing about piano rep is that you can play whatever you like as long as you’re not bothered about getting it up to tempo without mistakes. Today was Schubert Impromptus. Wonderful

  2. Jeff Henkel

    Ken, thanks for the great blog. I’m a first time poster, but I’ve been reading for a couple years now. Anyway, I’m also a cyclist with a little one and I can’t heartily recommend one of these enough:

    I have no connection with the company, but it’s a great product…I was able to bike all over the back-end of Indiana with my son, and stop off at parks for him to play. I got fit again, spent great time with my son, and had a blast.

    The rest of your summer itinerary sounds pretty fun too…best of luck with it.

  3. David Galvani

    Consider reading Sudbin’s ‘Bach Cello Suites’. It’s a good idea, bit vox pop but light.
    Your bike looks more like a racer than a mountain bike!
    I am planning to complete the 4th French suite this summer.

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